Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) served as the president of Russia from 1991 until 1999. Though a Communist Party member for much of his life, he eventually came to believe in both democratic and free market reforms, and played an instrumental role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin won two presidential elections, the first of which occurred while Russia was still a Soviet republic. But despite successfully ushering in a freer and more open society, his tenure was marred by economic hardship, increased corruption and crime, a violent war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and Russia’s diminished influence on world events.

Boris Yeltsin’s Early Years

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, in Butka, a small Russian village in the Ural Mountains. His peasant grandparents had been forcibly uprooted by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, and his father was arrested during the Stalin-era purges. In 1937 Yeltsin moved to the factory town of Berezniki, where his father—fresh out of a Gulag prison camp—found work as a laborer. Rebellious even as a youth, Yeltsin lost two fingers while playing with a hand grenade. He left Berezniki for Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in 1949 to attend the Urals Polytechnic Institute. As a student there, he trained to become a civil engineer, played volleyball and met his future wife, Naina Iosifovna Girina, with whom he would have two daughters.

Did you know? Boris Yeltsin was the first freely elected leader in Russia’s 1,000-year history.

Upon graduation, Yeltsin worked as an overseer of residential construction projects. He also stepped into the political arena, becoming a Communist Party member in 1961 and joining Sverdlovsk’s provincial party committee seven years later. After he served as party chief (roughly equivalent to governor) of the province from 1976 to 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev summoned him to Moscow. Within a year, Yeltsin was party chief there and a non-voting member of the policy-making Politburo. He became well known for railing against corruption, going so far as to fire hundreds of lower-level functionaries. He lost both of his posts in late 1987 and early 1988, however, after clashing with Gorbachev over the pace of reform.

Boris Yeltsin’s Political Comeback and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Having been exiled to a relatively obscure position in the construction bureaucracy, Yeltsin began his political comeback in 1989 by winning election to a newly formed Soviet parliament with nearly 90 percent of the vote. The following year he won a similar landslide victory in a race for Russia’s parliament, became its chair and then renounced his membership in the Communist Party. With his momentum building, Yeltsin began calling for Gorbachev’s resignation. He also submitted himself to elections for the Russian presidency, winning 59 percent of the vote in June 1991, compared to just 18 percent for his closest competitor.

Yeltsin’s stature rose even further in August 1991 when he climbed atop a tank to denounce a coup attempt against his rival Gorbachev. The coup, led by conservative Soviet officials, failed after three days. Immediately thereafter, Yeltsin set about dismantling the Communist Party, and all 15 of the Soviet Union’s republics moved to secure their independence. Gorbachev, who with his “perestroika” and “glasnost” program had hoped to change but not destroy the Soviet Union, resigned on December 25, 1991. Six days later the Soviet Union officially dissolved and was replaced by a politically weak Commonwealth of Independent States that Yeltsin had established along with his counterparts in Ukraine and Belarus.

Boris Yeltsin as President

With the Soviet Union out of the way, Yeltsin eliminated most price controls, privatized a slew of major state assets, allowed for the ownership of private property and otherwise embraced free market principles. Under his watch, a stock exchange, commodities exchanges and private banks all came into being. But although a select few oligarchs became shockingly wealthy, many Russians lapsed deeper into poverty due to rampant inflation and the rising cost of living. Yeltsin’s Russia also struggled with the taint of being an ex-superpower and with corruption, lawlessness, decreased industrial output and falling life expectancies. Moreover, Yeltsin began treating himself to some of the perks, such as chauffeured limousines, that he had previously criticized.

As president, Yeltsin broke from his Soviet predecessors by generally supporting freedom of the press, permitting public criticism and letting Western popular culture seep into the country. He also agreed to nuclear arms reductions and brought home soldiers from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Nonetheless, he did not completely disavow military action. After surviving impeachment proceedings, Yeltsin disbanded the communist-dominated parliament in September 1993 and called for elections to a new legislature. He then resolved the ensuing standoff by ordering tanks to shell the parliamentary building. The following year Yeltsin sent troops into the breakaway republic of Chechnya, an action that left roughly 80,000 people dead—the majority of them civilians. Though the fighting ceased in August 1996, it picked back up again in 1999 and lasted most of the next decade.

Health problems, some of them caused by heavy drinking, eventually began to take their toll on Yeltsin. In 1995 alone he had at least three heart attacks. Yet he decided to run for president anyway in 1996, winning a second term and then undergoing quintuple bypass surgery. Near the end of his time in office, he survived another round of impeachment proceedings and went through a string of prime ministers. In August 1998 the ruble collapsed and Russia defaulted on its treasury bills. Soon after, the economy finally turned around with the help of rising oil prices.

Russia After Boris Yeltsin

On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin gave a surprise address announcing his resignation and asking the Russian people’s forgiveness for past mistakes. He then handed off power to Vladimir Putin, his chosen successor and the last of his prime ministers, who granted him immunity from prosecution. Yeltsin died on April 23, 2007, following a quiet retirement during which Putin recentralized authority and restricted dissent.